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How Cancer Shifts Your Perception Of Time

My friend Marie has stage 4 colon cancer; she's been told she'll be on chemo for the rest of her life. But somehow through this ordeal, Marie, the mother of two young boys, finds the strength to discover important lessons about living a full, rich life. A few days ago she blogged about how her perception of time, and the general rush to check off the minutiae of each day, has evolved since her cancer diagnosis. Here, very slightly edited, is what she wrote:By Marie Colantoni Pechet
Guest Contributor

Recently I was sitting in heavy traffic, and no matter what lane I chose, it seemed like the other lane moved faster. Eventually, I decided to commit to staying in the right lane and trying to relax about it all. Taking a deep breath, I watched a white Jeep pass me in the left lane and I noticed its license plate. Sure enough, about 20 minutes and a mile later, I found myself sitting behind that exact white Jeep.

Realizing that hurrying doesn’t always get me there sooner doesn’t stop me from racing to get ahead in other aspects of life. For example, my to-do list seems to be never-ending, leaving me feeling like I am always behind and that there isn’t enough time.

marie pechet and her sons, 2011I suppose that feeling is normal. Then add chemotherapy to the mix. Every other week, I am basically out of commission. So I try to cram two weeks’ worth of living into one week.

As I’m sure you know, you can be efficient and even rush around, but some things can’t be rushed. I can’t rush traffic or how fast the train runs. I can’t rush conversations with the kids, reading a book to them, doing a project, watching a movie together, or being available as they do their homework. I can’t rush time connecting with family and friends.

When I was initially diagnosed with cancer, I became conscious of time and specifically, I held a sense of having a finite amount of time. I thought a lot about how I was spending it.

For example, I could justify seeing my oncologist as investment that could pay off in having more time. But waiting to see my oncologist? That felt like wasted time and I raged internally as minutes turned to hours.

Away from the cancer center, I resented standing in any kind of line, wanting to scream out, “I have stage IV cancer and I don’t have time for this!” From there, my little fantasy progressed in one of two ways:

1. Someone else waiting patiently in line reveals that they have a worse prediction of their future or
2. Everyone feels sorry for me and lets me go first.

Neither is an attractive scenario, so I usually waited quietly (albeit fuming and fidgeting).

When I wasn’t waiting, I struggled with how to use my time. Did I really want to be washing dishes, picking up after my sons, and doing the many mundane tasks that can make up my day? Should I instead check items off my bucket list (starting with making a bucket list) and do “big things,” whatever they were?

Whenever I am stuck in indecision, I end up doing...nothing. All that empty time, doing nothing, only added to my stress, frustration and feeling of going in circles.

Eventually, some confluence of circumstances forced me to focus on each individual moment. I’m sure those circumstances included feeling like I couldn’t count on tomorrow or even this afternoon. I’m also sure those circumstances involved some degree of grace that swept in like a gentle breeze or maybe like a hurricane, forcefully knocking me from my stuck place. Whatever brought me to the present moment, it gave me peace and sanity.

Though I stopped feeling as pressured, I continued to think about time, the norms around how we spend it and specifically how I spend mine. I dropped commitments that didn’t fuel my passion. I prioritized doing fun things over chores. I spent time with people who give me energy and lift me up.

Still, I feel like I can’t fit everything in.

One weekday morning, I put the dog in the car with an intention to take him for a walk. Instead, I ended up at church and wandered into the Mass. Yes, with the dog, who sat quietly under the pew.

While I was there, I realized that I think of Lent as this time when Jesus went into the desert, using this time to connect more deeply with God and to pray for strength as He approached His crucifixion.

But during that Mass, it occurred to me that he walked into the desert despite the gazillion people who still needed and wanted to be healed, the many people to help and the many who wanted to hear His teachings. He walked away from all the demands and all the contributions that He could make in order to do the single thing he needed to do.

If there was time enough for Him to walk into the desert, and if he was able to put aside His very important work, maybe I need to reconsider my own little list of things to do. Maybe I can remind myself that doing even one thing can constitute time well spent as I try to keep from racing to wherever it is I am going and trust that I am wherever I am supposed to be.

To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.

Marie Colantoni Pechet lives in Cambridge with her husband and two sons. Read her previous posts here and here and listen to her speak frankly about her life with cancer here.

This program aired on March 12, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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